Craig Gentry is creating an encryption system that could solve the problem keeping many organizations from using cloud computing to analyze and mine data: it’s too much of a security risk to give a public cloud provider such as Amazon or Google access to unencrypted data.
The problem is that while data can be sent to and from a cloud provider’s data center in encrypted form, the servers that power a cloud can’t do any work on it that way. Now Gentry, an IBM researcher, has shown that it is possible to analyze data without decrypting it. The key is to encrypt the data in such a way that performing a mathematical operation on the encrypted information and then decrypting the result produces the same answer as performing an analogous operation on the unencrypted data. The correspondence between the operations on unencrypted data and the operations to be performed on encrypted data is known as a homomorphism. “In principle,” says Gentry, “something like this could be used to secure operations over the Internet.”
With homomorphic encryption, a company could encrypt its entire database of e-mails and upload it to a cloud. Then it could use the cloud-stored data as desired—for example, to search the database to understand how its workers collaborate. The results would be downloaded and decrypted without ever exposing the details of a single e-mail.
Gentry began tackling homomorphic encryption in 2008. At first he was able to perform only a few basic operations on encrypted data before his system started producing garbage. Unfortunately, a task like finding a piece of text in an e-mail requires chaining together thousands of basic operations. His solution was to use a second layer of encryption, essentially to protect intermediate results when the system broke down and needed to be reset.
“The problem of how to create true homomorphic encryption has been debated for more than 30 years, and Craig was the first person who got it right and figured out how to make the math work,” says Paul Kocher, the president of the security firm Cryptography Research. However, Kocher warns, because Gentry’s scheme currently requires a huge amount of computation, there’s a long way to go before it will be widely usable.
Gentry acknowledges that the way he applied the double layer of encryption was “a bit of a hack” and that the system runs too slowly for practical use, but he is working on optimizing it for specific applications such as searching databases for records. He estimates that these applications could be ready for the market in five to 10 years.